David Toms on finding your club as an expat in Prague

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One of the main tram routes in Prague is the 22. This goes all the way from Bíla Hora, the site of one central Europe’s most famous battles to Hostivař. For a long time though, this wasn’t a tram I had any great familiarity with. But since my recent move to Vršovice in Prague 10, it’s one that I take daily. Going from my starting point at Krymská and heading in the direction of Hostivař just a few stops to Vršovické Námĕstí, as I step off the tram I can see floodlights just down the hill. These lights protruding into an otherwise fairly unremarkable horizon in this part of Prague, spring from the ground of Ďolíček – the dimple, in English – home of Bohemians Prague 1905.

I’ve been visiting Prague for several years now, and have sampled many of its footballing delights. I have been to a fair number of Sparta Prague games, including one Prague derby at Slavia’s swish Eden ground, not far from Bohemians in fact. I’ve also seen lower league side Viktoria Žižkov at home, and seen DUKLA Prague against Sparta. Initially I took a shine to Sparta but now that I live much closer to Ďolíček, and having discovered a fairly unsettling right-wing element in the support of Sparta, Bohemians increasingly seem like the team for me.

So it was after sorting out the most important elements of my apartment – okay, I still don’t have a decent set of curtains! – I took myself down to the dimple to shell out the very reasonable sum of 1,300Kč (roughly €48) for a season ticket to follow Bohemians. I moved to Prague in April to begin teaching English and to live in this wonderful city. Bohemians have a reputation for being an open, friendly club with an international support drawn from locals in the Vršovice area and many expats too. On all previous visits I’ve had to Ďolíček I found it a lively, entertaining and welcoming atmosphere; frenetic, but not threatening.

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One thing which appealed to me about Bohemians is that they are very much the underdogs of Prague’s bigger clubs, very much the fourth team among Sparta, Slavia and DUKLA. Aside from that, like my beloved Waterford United back home, they’re frankly a little bit crap, thus following them means I won’t be spoiling myself with success any time soon. But aside from this, their ground, this dimple of theirs, has a certain League of Ireland charm about it. It only has three stands for a start – a terraced end, section B1, where the ultras go and where the party happens at games. A large covered stand to the right of this, and a small open bank of bucket seating to the left of B1. The moniker of the dimple makes sense when you see the ground.

Another appealing element of Bohemians is that the club was very nearly made extinct a number of years ago due to poor financial management by its previous owners. Their story in fact is reminiscent of many in the League of Ireland in this regard, and they are, in a country utterly fanatical about its football, the only professional club in the top tier with a supporter’s trust. Thus the ethos is one which very much chimes with my own views on how a football club should be run and to what purpose. The club is inclusive, many of the fans actively anti-fascist, with links to St. Pauli of Hamburg. And the club crest is a green kangaroo.

Choosing a team as an expat is a weird business, trying to find a club that suits your particular needs i.e. one that doesn’t spoil you with success, reminded me of course of Nick Hornby’s relationship with Cambridge United in Fever Pitch, but I really do think that if you are a football fan, it is as important a part of helping you to settle into a new city and country as just about any other activity. It may seem strange to many that I would try to cultivate an interest in a club in an area of city to which I have only a marginal link.

“Most fans are one club fans for life. But that’s much easier if you’re also a one city person for life too. Expat life being what it is, however, having a football club to claim as your own is a kind of access to the sort of instant imagined communities which all football fans thrive on ultimately.”

This past Sunday I got to enjoy the delights of Ďolíček on the opening day of the season as they took on FC Fastav Zlín. It was a glorious day – between 23 and 25 degrees Celsius, not a cloud to be seen. Exactly what we dream summer soccer of being in Ireland but that it rarely is. The curious thing is that this isn’t summer soccer, but the Czech winter being especially cold and hard, there’s an extended winter break, so the season starts late in summer and ends early the following summer. On arriving at my tram stop, I walked down the hill to the ground (I know it well, my local post office is directly opposite).

bohs pmg 4As I walked down I spotted the usual array of Bohemians fans in their green and white, sporting kangaroos on their t-shirts, scarves and hats. The kangaroo is the crest of this curious club because of a tour done by Bohemians in 1922 to Australia, when the team were gifted with a kangaroo to bring back to Prague zoo. Thus the club are known as the Klokans, or Kangaroos. Near the ground, on match day, you’ll find U Klokana (at the Kangaroo, literally) packed with fans grabbing pre-match pints. Not that this is strictly necessary. Like every ground in the Czech Republic, Bohemians have plenty of beer stalls that you can get draught lager which can be drank in view of the pitch.

Prague for me is a city of smells. Standing on the open terrace, sun-blazing, there was the smell of beer being poured from the taps, piles of sausages sizzling on the grills, cigarette and marijuana smoke drifting across from various part of the terrace. Most of all, there was that smell of anticipation of a new season. And for me, the nervy start of a new relationship with a football club I’ve only had a passing acquaintance with until now.

As the match kicked off, the Bohemians Rude Boys (this is what the ultras call themselves and ska, two-tone and mod insignia is present throughout the ground), began in fine voice led by their capo. But then disaster struck, the capo’s loud hailer failing him within five minutes. After banging it a few times in vain, he smashed it off the ground in front of him, and with renewed vigour, began leading the crowd again. This was a capo going a capella. Although this made his job difficult, he persevered admirably and ensured, especially in the second half, that the crowd got fully behind the Bohemians performance. At half time, emerging onto his stand with a fresh pint in the still hammering sun, he guzzled about three-quarters of the pint in two slugs. This was thirsty work.

“Around me the fans sung hardly without a break, arrayed not just in their own club colours, but in those of Celtic, Shamrock Rovers and even St. Patrick’s Athletic.”

The game itself was a classic season opener with players slowly entering the game and most of the first half spent by both teams feeling each other out; a goal, against the run of play for Zlín, kicked the game into life. As half-time approached, but for the heroics of their goalkeeper Zlámal, it would have been 2-0. The second half was very much more Bohemians and they pushed on hard to secure an equaliser. This is when I spotted what is sure to be a serious problem for the season ahead: although they could create good chances, especially through the runs down the right wing of Jhon Mosquera, up front they seemed shy on clinical finishers, with more than a dozen chances going begging.

The intensity of the second half was added to by the antics of the Zlín goalkeeper, Jiří Adamuška, who was eventually booked for his time wasting, and with the Rude Boys winding him up (and tossing their half empty plastic beer cups at him over the fence) he sent several balls to the left out onto the street, the left hand stand being no more than a few rows of bucket seating. In all, I counted half a dozen balls going outside the ground during the course of the game. At times frenetic, farcical and full-blooded this was a solid opening performance from Bohemians, even if that equalizing goal remained elusive. After the game, as I waited for my tram to start the trek to Riegrovy Sady for a pint in Prague’s most well-known beer garden, the chant ‘Bohemka do toho’ Rang in my ears. I think I’m going to like it here.

David Toms is a sport historian and author of ‘Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937′ published by Cork University Press. Follow on Twitter: @daithitoms